Film Reviews

The future depends on a rebellious waitress clone named Sonmi-451. Be careful what you order.

Cloud Atlas is three or four of the best movies of the year

Like thrillers? We got you covered. Like epics set in the past? Ditto. Like epics set in the distant future? Check. Like a gritty Bullitt-like 70s noir set in San Francisco? No problema. Hey, did you swoon to the Matrix? You’re so in–with a futuristic fashion palette that will frost your ‘fro. The Lord of the Rings? Order the popcorn and settle in. A film of social conscience and moral awakening? Fear not, you will feel enlightened at the end. And if the shape-shifting scifi of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made your synapses fire, we got that, too.

All in one film. One very good film. With, I almost forgot, a wonderful comedy set in a concentration camp of a nursing home that unites several of the above plots.

This, my friend, is Cloud Atlas. It’s based on a cult novel of the same name by David Mitchell, which is not reason to see the movie (although you should read the book, it’s excellent and features two subplots set in Hawaii). Tag-team directed by the Matrix sister/brother Lana and Andy Wachowski and quick-cutting samurai (Run Lola Run) Tom Tykwer, it seamlessly tosses a salad of plots through bravura editing. The ferocity of the pacing recalls the best Bourne movies–a speed of storytelling that sweeps us away, trusting the directors will make sense of it all by the end.

The script is sharp and decisive–one minute you’re in Seoul a couple hundred of years from now rooting for a clone rebellion led by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), the next you’re on an early 19th century square-rigger watching a good-hearted lawyer (Jim Sturgess) being slowly poisoned by a creepy quack doctor (Tom Hanks) intent on stealing his money and his teeth. And those are just two of at least six entwined storylines. The connections over time and space quickly become self-evident, though keeping up with the pace is probably hopeless. You have to let this one wash over you and revisit it in your mind over the next few days, or weeks.

All well and good, and enough to make this one of the notable movies of the year. But what elevates and unites the story is the cast, all of whom play multiple roles. Besides Hanks, Bae and Sturgess, you have Halle Berry doing her best work in years, Jim Broadbent breaking up the theater with his impersonation of a geriatric-home rebel, and Hugo Weaving reprising his Matrix scary faces. Master and Commander’s James D’Arcy, Bright Star’s Ben Whislaw and breakout David Gyasi leave us wringing our hankies. All this and Hugh Grant as a heavy–yes, Hugh Grant.

Sometimes you will recognize the actors, even across time, because as per the plot they bear a “genetic” connection and inheritance. (This is the past-lives core that has made some critics uneasy despite the fact that it plays no differently than Neo-as-Jesus in The Matrix.) Other times you won’t have a clue that, say, James D’Arcy is not only the young and old Rufus Sixsmith, but also the horrifying Valkyrie Nurse James. You’ll have to stick around to the credits to see who plays whom–and in my theater, people were gasping and laughing, because the players take so many parts, as in Elizabethan drama.

The Oscar for best makeup is a lock and script and direction should be, too. But, regardless of how the awards play out, this is a movie people will look back on as defining a decade.